The Pathology of Classical Sculpture

Figure 1A

Sam Shuster
Emeritus Professor,
University of Newcastle Upon Tyne
Newcastle Upon Tyne, U.K.

Whether you enjoy classical sculpture or just pass it by when visiting stately homes and gardens, you must have noticed that there are many broken-off pieces. You may have further noticed that, if you exclude the commonplace loss of limbs and fingers, the penis fronts the list of lost sculptural properties (see example in Figure 1A and close-up in Figure1B). We all know the penile organ often goes astray socially, but why does its stone version go missing?

As a clinical researcher, I’ve spent a life wondering, a habit too strong to be undone by retirement; and this particular item of sculptural pathology has long idled listlessly on my list of wonderments. Then last year, during a touristic gawp at classical Rome, the enormity of the city’s sculpture population and that population’s inescapable depenilation gave me no option (I felt) but to study the problem. This is the curious story of how that happened.

Penises In, or Not In, The Vatican
My first, simplistic explanation of the missing penises was their deliberate removal, presumably because of distaste for the public showing of a private organ. That would explain the great frequency of their loss from both classical and later pieces on display in public places throughout Europe, where their removal could be executed in silence.

But what about Vatican City? There, surely, sculptures are less likely to be struck by vandalism in the gardens, or for concealment of sexual embarrassment in the great Vatican halls. After all, they were commissioned for their naked appearance, and the many paintings close by are just as revealing. Of course the oldest sculptures would have been exposed before reaching the safety of the Vatican, but the more contemporary pieces were always in safe hands. So my first experimental question about sculptural penis loss (SPL) was whether it was less in Vatican City than elsewhere.

I first explored the Vatican gardens, and while my wife oohed and ahhed at the many beauties to be seen, I oohed and ahhed at their sculptural absence: the shocking answer to my question was that the sculptures of the Vatican Gardens were just as afflicted by SPL as everywhere else.

Figure 1B

Surely, then, the key finding would be the state of sculpture inside the Vatican buildings, where there could be no SPL because anatomy would be protected from social or sexual vandals. Sadly for that hypothesis there was indeed, and obviously, SPL—just as much as outside one  finds (or doesn’t find) in the gardens, and in other parts of the Rome and other European sites.

To be sure of this, I needed quantitative confirmation. So I walked down one side of one of the enormous Vatican halls that extend seemingly unto infinity, each side of which is lined with sculptures, paintings and tapestries, and did an SPL count on a consecutive series of 50 sculptures of males with genital exposure—whether the subjects be adults, children, angels, or putti. To my amazement, almost 80% had lost their sexual termini.

This was serious, particularly as, as a practicing atheist, I had no desire or reason for doing battle with the Vatican.

An Alternative to the Penis
I sought independent confirmation from a  different source— what clinical researchers and would-be scientists call controls, in the belief that when coupled with a suitable dressing from the list of statistical salads, “controls” are an essential component of experimental truth.

There was a pretty obvious confirmatory (“control”) source available. If one protruding piece of terminal anatomy was missing, its loss would only be specific if another protruding piece was not missing. And the protuberance that was the natural “control” of the extremity I’d been examining was equally obvious on the other end of the sculpture, the nose. So I went back down the same track and did a recount of the same sculptures, but this time looking for missing noses. As you will by now have guessed, far fewer noses were lost than penises: just over 20%.

Now I was beginning to get somewhere. If two protuberances were equally available for removal, but only one was selected, there has to have been something special about it.

Failed research, of which I have much well-concealed experience, has left its message: when you think you’ve arrived at your happy ending it’s time to double-check, just as you know that happy music when a film still has 30 minutes left only means trouble. So I walked back past the sculptures yet again, this time trying to keep my mind and eye open to all and any new options—but not with the scientific neutrality some think is essential, because that just sees all things as equals, which means nothing stands out for the picking; far better to look with bias, almost to pretend there’s something worthwhile, which you then go on to reject
when you find it insupportable.

Figure 2A

A Subtlety Noticed
Ambling past the same sculptures again, this time with my selectively open mind, I did find    something different: I noticed some of the noses I’d been counting as intact had a slightly different color. A closer look showed a faint line where the color changed.

The explanation was soon obvious: they’d been repaired. For each missing nose, a new nose had been made and fixed (see Figures 2A and 2B).

As these nasal repairs could have made all the difference to my extremity count, I had to go back yet again to examine the noses of the same group of sculptures more closely. But this time I could see that my odd behaviour had been noticed, and that I was being watched by the Vatican staff, who appeared curious about what I might be up to. I wasn’t stopped, but I could see this would have to be my last go! So staring as blandly as I could, now that I was being watched by    the attendants, I  did a final recount of my small sample group of sculptures, and to my delight—never believe a scientist who claims to be unconcerned about what is found—the number of broken noses, if you include those missing and those repaired and replaced, was over 70%, similar to the number of broken-off penises.

Figure 2B

Projecting Extremities
So my assumed penile pathology was spurious. The findings simply show that projecting extremities are more easily broken off than other bodily hunks. Amazing how the obvious becomes obvious only after you recognise it.

Of course projections are likely to be struck accidentally, but a more interesting possibility (and therefore the one to follow even if it is wrong) is that the molecular stress induced in the stone sculpted by hammer and chisel will always be more extreme on relatively narrow, projecting extremities, which will therefore snap more easily than other, less stressed, parts of the sculpted stone. So maybe it isn’t just coincidence that the Satyr’s non-protuberant genital spiral has remained intact but his nose hasn’t.

Author’s Personal Comment
Satisfying though it was to find an explanation of the penile pathology of classical sculpture, sadly its tameness is much less interesting than the discarded theoretical possibilities, and has taken some of the excitement out of sculpture-viewing.

Author’s Addendum
Since this paper was written, it has been reported that in Italian president Silvio Berlusconi’s office in the Chigi Palace, a second-century sculpture of Mars has been given an adjustable plastic penis to stand with the new plastic hand of Venus.

Editor’s Note
Readers may wish to supplement the observations and analysis in the article with the mostly (but not entirely) related data and commentary gathered and performed three decades earlier by another doctor from the United Kingdom, who also conducted independent research in Italy. See Chris McManus’s “Scrotal Asymmetry in Man and in Ancient Sculpture,” Nature, vol. 259, February 5, 1976, p. 426.

A snippet of McManus’s study “Scrotal Asymmetry in Man and Ancient Sculpture.”

There Dr. McManus writes:
“I observed the scrotal asymmetry of 107 sculptures, either of antique origin or Renaissance copies, in a number of Italian museums and galleries. Table 1 shows that although the ancient artists were correct in tending to place the right testicle higher, they were wrong in so far as they also tended to make the lower testicle the larger: we may postulate that they were also using the common-sense view that the heavier ought to be lower. Although Winckelmann’s observations of antique sculpture were correct, his observations of nature are clearly in error.”

In 2002 Dr. McManus was honored for this work, with an  Ig Nobel Prize in the field of medicine.


The article above is republished with permission from the January-February 2011 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.

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Why do you post these? There is actual research and a whole history behind the often deliberate destruction of statues, that is actually quite interesting and true.
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